Every four years like clockwork, hardcore MLS fans theorize that the popularity of the World Cup and the USMNT in the US will boost the attendance and television ratings of Major League Soccer. For many sports fans, the inability of MLS to crack into the big three of professional football, basketball and baseball is baffling. Youth soccer has enjoyed wide participation in the US for at least a couple of generations of young athletes. Literally millions of kids play the game. Yet many of those kids “graduate” to other sports for their high school years and beyond. The youth sport does not seem to have much traction holding kids close to the game.
Every four years MLS has the potential for a popularity boost as US eyes are riveted to the TV screen in order to catch the World Cup and the USMNT, but the theoretical increase always seems to fade. MLS has done its best over the years to become more like the Premier League, at least in superfluous terms. With team names like D.C. United, Sporting Kansas City and Real Salt Lake, the league certainly attempts to have some of the team monikers sound European. A good number of the fans even carry the team scarves similar to European football, although being a well-known hipster arena, some of those MLS fans may only want an excuse to carry a scarf instead of having an actual interest in the sport.
Part of the problem with achieving a carryover in World Cup popularity lies in the championship event itself. The World Cup is a once every four years worldwide phenomenon. People all over the world follow the Finals from beginning to end. Each stadium venue is packed to the rafters with adoring fans who live and die with the result. Using baseball as an example, each World Cup game is like post-season MLB play with a packed house of buzzing fans. Going back to mid-season MLS games is like going from the World Series back to a mid-summer game on a Tuesday night. Yes, the sport is the same, but the excitement level is not the same.
Although many US fans are not soccer connoisseurs, even casual fans appreciate gifted players doing remarkable things. Even US fans had to appreciate Cristian Ronaldo’s crossing pass with time expiring to set up Portugal’s game tying goal. The USMNT played very well and almost won, but one of the world’s best athletes made an amazing play to undercut the US squad’s yeoman efforts. Fans watching the World Cup become spoiled watching the best players in the world competing their guts out for their respective countries. While the MLS talent level continues to increase, the league cannot offer that same level of play. As soon as the MLS has a number of single-name players such as Ronaldo and Messi, the popularity could truly explode.
Perhaps what US sports fans demand the most is gifted athletes. Fans love watching LeBron James and Kobe Bryant in basketball, and Calvin Johnson and Adrian Peterson in football, to name only a few. As soon as MLS is able to attract those types of singularly talented players, then US fans might go to the games in droves. Until such time as elite US athletes start playing soccer well enough to go by a one word moniker, the carryover popularity from the World Cup and the USMNT to the MLS will be merely a theory and not real.
Commentary by William Costolo